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Digital inclusion for people with disabilities

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Having listened to a plethora of presentations and read a host of articles and academic writings on how to bridge the existing digital divide on the continent, one marginalised group seems to come to mind.

The needs of people living with disabilities, a group with very unique requirements coupled with complex segments within the group, seems to escape most Internet policy agendas and programme initiatives. The World Health Organisation’s World Report on Disability notes that about 15% of the world’s population live with one or more forms of disabilities. This translates to over 1 billion people.

Without attempting to define and further segment the different types of disabilities, arguably, this group of individuals based in the urban areas have the same access to the internet and technology as people living without disabilities. The issue of whether Africa currently has sufficient internet penetration levels has always been the subject of great debate.

Another debate is whether the focus should be on providing internet access to a generic population or further breaking down the demographics, to account for specialised provision that takes into account the needs of all groups. However, for the sake of this article, we will focus on individuals who have had the privilege of decent access to digital tools and services. While the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), recognises the rights of people with disabilities, as well as their ability to exist as active members of society, their key needs and challenges continue to be inadequately addressed.

Access alone does not guarantee that one will adopt, apply and fully participate in the digital realm. While one may have access to go online, they may lack the adequate support and requisite skills to meaningfully use digital tools. Majority of access policies have focused on providing software and hardware for accessing digital tools to a generic group of people while digital inclusion initiatives have heavily been designed to carter for the able bodied.

The internet’s promise as an enabler for opportunities is yet to be realised by the disabled. People with disabilities have for long lived with exclusion from many social spheres. Understanding the barriers to accessibility and participation allows us to plan for a more inclusive technology environment. Current policies and initiatives tend to favour privileged groups of individuals while excluding people with special needs, thus isolating them from the digital world. The digital realm requires users to be more than users, but allow them to harness the internet’s ability to aid content creation, health, commerce, education and many other aspects of life.

One of the internet’s key prospects is that it promises to conquer some of the social, economic and structural barriers that have existed for disabled persons. To overcome these barriers, a comprehensive approach to fostering digital inclusion is required, one that takes into consideration the different and unique physical, sensory, intellectual and psychological needs of each group within these communities. Policies and initiatives that are tailored to promote access, adoption, application and support.

Aside from the many factors that disadvantage the uptake of ICTs by the disabled such as income, unemployment, education levels and health problems, the issue of psychological support is often overlooked. By default, disability negatively correlates to someone’s likelihood of accessing digital tools and services. Such support enables people to conquer the livid experiences of psychological and social scenarios that have created barriers to ICT uptake.

If technology and the internet are to yield the expected promises, we need to embrace a ‘carry everyone along’ approach that builds a resilient, inclusive, collaborative and innovative digital economy where every person is able to contribute value and gain the desired benefits. Additionally, everyone regardless of his or her ability or disability should advocate for this and echo the principle of an ‘internet for everyone’.

Bulanda T. Nkhowani is a digital rights enthusiast and a Google Policy Fellow for Southern Africa under Paradigm Initiative.

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